Inside the Scalping Biz
For someone working at a Ticketmaster outlet, “the biggest thing is that you have to make money. You have to scam. There’s no benefits, maybe $6 an hour. You hitch yourself up with one or two brokers though, and you can make a living.”
The speaker–I’ll call him Smith–worked at a Ticketmaster outlet for a number of years. He asked that his name, where he worked, and any number of identifying particulars not be revealed. But his insider’s view of the ticket-selling business confirms the worst suspicions of many fans: that moneyed scalpers and poorly paid ticket sellers conspire to put the best seats for rock shows, sports events, and theater into the hands of those willing to pay big bucks for them.
“Money rules,” Smith says flatly. “Bulls tickets right now–it’s ridiculous. You can make hundreds of dollars with one of them. People with a lot of money don’t care. Or a businessman. What’s a thousand dollars when you’re entertaining a multimillion-dollar customer? It just goes into the expense account.”
How did he get into the business? “People approach you [at the outlet],” he says. “You’re apprehensive at first, but then the money comes in.”
As a worker, he says, he’d get $5, $10, or $15 a ticket. How many tickets? “An average of ten to as many as I could get.” For much-in-demand events dozens of the best seats from his outlet alone would disappear into the scalping stream.
Wristband sales–in which numbered wristbands are given out to fans to randomize the lineups and make things tougher on scalpers–are routinely compromised, Smith says. “You just give as many wristbands to whoever you want to.” Ticketmaster procedure is to announce a starting number the morning of the sale. Employees like himself got around that too. “If there’s 500 wristbands you just give the brokers two out of every ten to cover them” no matter what number comes up.
But of course even good wristband numbers can’t compete with inside sources. Once, Smith recalls, he was buying tickets himself for a major show. At the outlet he watched an employee print ten pulls of eight tickets before opening the window. “Eighty times $20 a ticket–how much money is that?” asks Smith.
The fans were in most cases oblivious, he says. “Most people don’t know what’s going on. They have no idea. The people who would get mad were those working for other brokers. They’d hear the machine printing out tickets and would complain to Ticketmaster.” The ticket seller had to be careful, he says. “If Ticketmaster found out you’d get fired or I don’t know what would happen. Or they’d take away the privileges [from the operation] and the whole scam’s gone.”
Troubles arose from time to time. Canceled shows or machine breakdowns–anything that might initiate an inquiry into what tickets went where–could be a nightmare. “We got our hands slapped once or twice,” he says. “Ticketmaster would send someone out to sit in at your operation and then you can’t do anything. They do police it more than you’d think.”
But the lure of the money is great. The all-time scalping gravy train, he says, came to the workers in a downtown theater box office that had had a Broadway road show in place for more than a year. “We sat around one day figuring out how much the box-office guys were making,” he says. “I forget the exact numbers we were using, but as an example say their cut is $15 a ticket, ten pairs of tickets per week, say at least ten brokers working the venue. You do the math and figure it out.”
Hitsville did the math: More than $150,000 a year just as “juice,” as Smith calls it, to the box-office personnel at one venue.
The business has its ups and downs, Smith says. “I’ve seen brokers gamble on a show and get left with 15 or 20 tickets the day of the show. You have to sell them outside the venue, which is hard to do these days. I’ve seen them eat $300 or $400 on one show.” Or a particular box office will suddenly get in trouble for a while, he says, citing a pair of the city’s best-known venues. “Or maybe a certain broker will fall out of favor because some new employees come in.”
But the biggest gripe among brokers, he says, is ironically enough against their own kind. Major scalpers banded together to get the state law against scalping repealed some years ago. “They paid the organization fees and a lot of big money to get legitimized, and then, after the business was legalized, all these other people popped up to compete with them. They didn’t help, but they’re reaping the benefits.”
Greil Marcus is in town Wednesday to speak at Northwestern. His subject: “The Old Weird America,” a talk about an early anthology of American folk music. It’s at 4:30 PM in room 107 of the campus’s Harris Hall, with a reception to follow. . . . I’m often asked why writers so rarely respond to letters in the Reader; many find a lack of response arrogant. Actually, it’s the paper’s laudable position that, absent an issue of factual accuracy, writers don’t have to get the last word. One of what I hope will be many attractions of the Hitsville Mosh Pit, debuting this week on the World Wide Web, will be the opportunity to discuss columns and anything else having to do with music with local readers and visitors from around the world. Peter Margasak says he’ll check in from time to time as well. The address is http://www.chireader.com/hitsville.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Steven Arazmus.